Review by Judith Robinson
The Shaw Festival’s production of Master Harold and the Boy kept the viewers on the edges of their seats for a full ninety minutes. Based on an incident in playwright Athol Fugard’s youth, the 1982 drama created an atmosphere of simmering tension, until the pot boiled over, and the audience leapt to its feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Master Harold’s plot centers around the friendship between a white South African teenager, Hally, (Fugard’s childhood nickname), played by James Daly, and his black friend, Sam, played by André Sills—a clerk in his mother’s café and a servant in Hally’s home. Photo by David Cooper
Sam took over as Hally’s male role-model when he was growing up- because Hally’s father was an alcoholic cripple. Sam did the things a father would do-helping Hally with his homework, building him kites etc. They maintained a casual comradery for years. But then, as the play begins, Hally has been forced to assume a new role. After his father’s hospitalization, Hally’s mother has asked him to temporarily oversee the shop, and manage Sam and his co-worker, Willie, played by Allan Louis.
On the brink of adulthood, Hally can’t figure out how to keep his old friend Sam’s friendship and find a footing in his two-tiered society. He vacillates between opening himself up to a new way of thinking and stepping backwards into a rigid past. If he chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps, he will have to let go of Sam.
Sam gets through to Hally—at times. For moments, the teen connects with his black mentor and begins to understand how the black man feels. He wants to hear about the black experience. He lets the tender side of himself come to the fore. But then, just as quickly, his anger flashes and Hally pushes Sam away.
Daly did an excellent job of capturing the complex emotions of the troubled teen. And Louis demonstrated a singular compassion for the boy who must become a man. The relationship between them was heart-wrenching and sad. The audience was given a glimpse of the difficulty for a black and a white South African, in 1950, to form an emotional connection—and indeed wonders whether such a relationship is even possible today. Everything about the production was charmed and magical.
Master Harold and the Boys is playing in the Court House Theatre in Niagara on the Lake until September 10th.